Internazionale FC survived the shock of conceding an early goal against AEK Athens at the San Siro stadium before beating the Greek side 3-1 in the UEFA Cup fourth round first-leg.
Theodoros Zagorakis gave the Greek league leaders that shock lead - AEK certainly did not come bearing gifts to Milan - with a wonderful dipping volley in the eighth minute. By half-time Inter had regained control of the match, taking the lead thanks to goals from Javier Zanetti and Mohamed Kallon. And ten minutes after the restart Nicola Ventola further extended that lead.
In the end it proved a comfortable enough win, but any gloss on the victory was tarnished by a serious injury to a 22-year-old male Inter fan, who fell from the second tier of the San Siro stadium. Witnesses said the fan fell over a safety railing while celebrating Inter's third goal and crashed into plastic seating around 15 metres below. Medical staff were quickly on the scene and carried the fan, who had suffered an open wound to the head, away on a stretcher. After the game the Inter coach said everybody at the club were praying for the supporter. "It had a bad effect on the match," said Cuper. "The players immediately understood that this was a really bad accident."
Back on the field of play, the Greek league leaders will be hoping that in a week's time when the two teams meet in the Nikos Goumas stadium in Athens that they can translate their intricate approach play - frequently the Greeks left Inter chasing shadows - into goals. On the evidence of Thursday's game Vassilis Tsartas' playmaking qualities and Zagorakis' goalscoring qualities from midfield will be vital to their hopes. On 70 minutes those two AEK players combined from a set-piece, but Zagorakis directed his header agonisingly the wrong side of Francesco Toldo's post. "We were not very lucky in attack," said the AEK coach Fernando Santos. "But this is not the end, we still have a chance in the next match."
Zagorakis' goal visibly dented Inter's fragile confidence and left their coach Héctor Cúper apoplectic with rage on the touchline. Unable to get their passing rhythm going, Inter had to concentrate on their defensive duties as an emboldened AEK surged forward. But Inter's confidence was restored by Zanetti's clever solo goal on 14 minutes. Given the ball by Clarence Seedorf, the Argentinian burst into the box and unleashed a fierce low shot that surprised Dionissis Chiotis. Before the game Zanetti had promised that Inter's 3-0 win at Verona on Sunday had restored their faltering Serie A challenge as well as their confidence and his own personal performance - full of brio - certainly demonstrated that. Zanetti's goal was the cue for Inter to regroup and to begin to control the midfield, with Zanetti and Seedorf prominent with Sérgio Conceição providing plenty of willing support on the right flank.
During the interval Cúper withdrew Christian Vieri, who had had a quiet game up to that point, replacing him with Ventola. Ten minutes after the restart it proved an inspired substitution when Ventola muscled past Rodrigo Ramos and then touched the ball past Dionissis Chiotis. Ventola's aggression and nose for a goal deserved plenty of praise, but so do Seedorf for releasing the striker in the first place with an astute angled pass. In the game's later stages Ventola almost grabbed a second when he glanced a header just past the post after Alvaro Recoba's mazy dribble.